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Sunday 19 November 2017

Efficient Lilywhites in it for the long haul

Finn Harps 0 Dundalk 2

Goal scorer David McMillan performs his familiar celebration at Finn Park on Saturday night
Goal scorer David McMillan performs his familiar celebration at Finn Park on Saturday night

James Rogers

One of the biggest weekends of the sporting year was a timely reminder that success is arrived at via a marathon rather than a sprint.

Much has been made of the fact that Dundalk trail an unbeaten Cork City side by six points in the race for the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division title but while the Rebels were clocking up another impressive victory over Derry City live on TV, the champions were going about their business in a highly professional manner more than 450km further north with far fewer eyes on them.

The six point gap might remain at the end of matchday eight but Dundalk's display in Finn Park was evidence, if any were required, that Stephen Kenny's side are in this for the long haul.

Titles aren't won in March or April and while Cork have started on fire there will be inevitible bumps on the road in the weeks and months ahead.

A couple of fences from home in the Grand National at Aintree on Saturday the highly-fancied Blaklion looked on course to win. In the end the 8-1 favourite with many bookmakers had to settle for fourth.

Likewise in the Masters, Charley Hoffman set the early pace heading into the weekend but by the finish but he was tied for 22nd place, 11 shots off eventual winner Sergio Garcia.

There have been past examples in the League of Ireland as well. Back in Stephen Kenny's first season in charge of Dundalk in 2013, Sligo Rovers started the campaign with eight consecutive victories just like Cork had done. Already with a title under their belts, they looked unstoppable. Their final position: third.

Cork might be understandably the bookies' favourites right now but Dundalk are by no means going away.

John Caulfield's side once again took the majority of the headlines from the League of Ireland weekend but the champions remain in their slip stream.

Friday night was a difficult test. The Finn Park playing surface was a world away from that which greeted the side when they won 7-0 there last May. It was narrow and bumpy, lines were not straight and a lesser side could have been forgiven for not fancying it on the night.

The likes of Conor Clifford, Michael Duffy and Thomas Stewart, who have been most recently in England, Scotland and North America respectively wouldn't be used to playing on a surface that had the same bounce to it as a car park but each contributed to a professional team performance. Dundalk got the job done and got out - just what you need to do in situations such as these.

There will be tougher tests ahead, of course, but this fixture had the potential to be a real banana skin. Perhaps conscious of the result in the corresponding fixture last year, Ollie Horgan set up a 4-2-3-1 formation that was arguably closer to being a 6-3-0 at times with wingers Ethan Boyle and Caolan McAleer tucking in as wing backs for much of the game and Barry Molloy and Jonny Bonner camping themselves in front of the centre halves.

While the home side had a couple of dangerous crosses in either half, it told a story of their ambition that they registered just two shots at goal in the game, the first on target not arriving until the 89th minute.

You got the feeling that the Donegal side would have happily settled for a dull, scoreless draw but in the end the major difference between the sides was their quality in front of goal. While Harps lacked a cutting edge, David McMillan delivered for Dundalk in style.

Two goals either side of half-time ensured that the Lilywhites ground out the sort of results you expect from champions. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't memory but they got the job done.

That's all that matters at this stage and with back-to-back home matches on the horizon now against Bray Wanderers and Bohemians there is a definite chance to build up a proper head of steam.

While McMillan will deservedly take the headlines, perhaps the most pleasing aspect to come from the game was how the new recruits fit in. Sean Hoare looked composed on his debut while each of the others who featured look to be growing in stature with each passing game.

Indeed, it told its own story that both Niclas Vemmelund and Clifford notched up their first assists for their new employers.

The movement of McMillan made both of those crosses possible though and he looks to have put his early season injury problems behind him having now notched three goals in his last four. Having played just 220 minutes of football so far in 2017, his ratio of a goal every 55 minutes is truly top notch.

The 28-year-old had gone closest for Dundalk before the opener when he hit the post with a header from Dane Massey's cross on 26 minutes, with Ciaran Coll hooking off the line before Brian Gartland could pounce from the follow up.

Harps had threatened at the other end four minutes earlier when Sean Houston got in behind Gartland from Bonner's ball over the top but Sean Hoare, on his full debut, cut out the cross having nipped in ahead of McAleer.

The home side had been gathering momentum with four or five consecutive frees won in-a-row when Dundalk hit the front on 34 minutes.

Vemmelund, playing at right back, cut in from the sideline onto his left foot to hang a cross over the head of Killian Cantwell with McMillan getting an outstretched leg to it to divert the pall past the despairing dive of Ciaran Gallagher.

Bonner would register a first attempt for Harps five minutes later when he tried his luck from range but it summed up their half that he scuffed well wide.

Despite now holding the initiative, Dundalk were struggling to build on it with several pinged passes from left to right in the direction of Jamie McGrath either side of the break failing to come off as the visitors failed to execute their plan to get him running at the already booked Gareth Harkin.

Harps were not going to give up easily with McMillan and Clifford shipping heavy blows in the early stages of the second half that would have had Stephen Kenny's heart in his mouth for a brief spell.

The former recovered in time to glance a header onto the crossbar from Massey's free kick on 52 minutes before the pair took their frustrations out in a positive manner by combining for the second goal two minutes later.

Clifford found space on the left to cross for the inrushing McMillan to tap home from close range.

Job effectively done.

There were chances after that for Dundalk to add to their advantage with Stewart twice going close either side of the hour mark, firstly pulling a shot just wide from Duffy's cutback from the left before racing onto a superb ball over the top from McGrath only to see his toepoked effort come off the advancing Gallagher before trickling wide for a corner.

Duff then went close on 66 minutes when he latched onto a clever pass from Massey on the left before seeing his effort bobble wide as McMillan just failed to get on the end of it.

Clifford then went close with a free kick on 79 minutes and Dundalk were almost made to pay for failing to firmly put the game to bed when Harps had strong penalty appeals turned away two minutes later.

Hoare went down in his own box having lost his footing in a race with substitute Eddie Dsane and appeared to handle the ball on the ground. It looked for all the world a spot kick but referee Paul Tuite awarded a hugely soft free out much to the annoyance of Horgan and his assistant Paul Hegarty.

Duffy had yet another chance to wrap things up five minutes from the end when he latched onto Stewart's header across goal but the former Celtic man could only blaze wide on the turn.

Harps finally managed their first effort at goal a minute from the end when Rogers got down well to deal with Ciaran Coll's shot after Dundalk failed to deal with a long throw from Mikey Funston.

It wasn't pretty or particularly memorable but three points were in the bag.

Dundalk had proved they were still the Masters at grinding out results in difficult circumstances.

It's a true mark of champions and, while their title is under threat, results and performances such as this will ensure they're well positioned to still be in the running to retain it when it really matters in the final few furlongs that lie await in September and October.

The Argus

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